The Democratic Republic of Congo is currently one of the world’s largest and most complex humanitarian crisis, which at the end of 2018, reached 4.5 million people who were internally displaced due to ongoing conflict and violence. Just in 2018, over one million Congolese were estimated to have been internally displaced, and this deterioration is mainly felt in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasais and Tanganyika.
Operating in this environment is a real challenge for humanitarians because infrastructure is damaged or is insufficient to meet the needs of the population. Furthermore, logistics are extremely complex due to the very nature of the context and insecurity often prevents humanitarian aid from reaching vulnerable population. Nevertheless, UNHCR and many implementing partners continue to work to provide assistance and protection to refugees, displaced people and the host communities.
We interview Mariama Ndiaye, Associate WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Officer at UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, in the Baraka Field Office, South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as part of our cycle of interviews to commemorate next Friday’s World Water Day.
Question: Firstly, we would like to know briefly your career path and your current role in the UNHCR?
Answer: Graduated in rural engineering, integrated development, and land use planning, I joined the UNHCR South Kivu operation in July 2017, after 20 years working in the development sector as a multidisciplinary engineer focusing on environment, water and sanitation, and project management.
My role as Associate WASH Officer in the UNHCR Baraka field office is basically to provide technical support and guidance to the UNHCR South and North Kivu and partners on activities within the areas of WASH. I advise the Programme on the strategic development of WASH aspects after undertaking the required needs and resource assessments. I ensure that water supply and sanitation infrastructure meet UNHCR standards in terms of protection and public health and meet all groups of POCs’ needs. To reach the goals, I also complete training activities to ensure that partners, refugees and other people of concern to UNHCR acquire the needed knowledge and skills to assist effectively. In addition, I get involved in shelter and infrastructures, site planning, and NFIs activities, when needed.
The UNHCR carries out all the necessary water, sanitation, and hygiene activities that are implemented in a rural area
Water tanks in South Kivu (photo: UNHCR)
Q: What type of activities does the UNHCR carry out related to water and sanitation?
A: In our operation, the UNHCR carries out all the necessary water, sanitation, and hygiene activities that are implemented in a rural area, from engineering design and construction, facilities and equipment maintenance and rehabilitation, water treatment, to social marketing of good hygiene practices and community involvement. In addition, it ensures refugees dignity by providing hygiene consumables like soap and menstrual management material for women and girls, and easy to handle water transportation containers.
Q: In relation to UNHCR’s refugee WASH programme, what are the main achievements reached this past year/s?
A: At the Mulongwe site, the UNHCR opted to transition into durable WASH operations very early on by starting directly with household facilities. In fact, Cash Based Interventions for showers and latrines were conducted to encourage families to build their own facilities and to improve sense of ownership for effective maintenance. Having household level facilities not only improves health outcomes by reducing water related diseases, but it also reduces protection risks that can be associated with accessing community facilities at night.
To make the SDG 6 goal possible, everyone can step up to the plate and do their part and be open to behaviour changes
The main achievements are:
- The production of a comprehensive country Wash strategy based on participatory consultation at the field level that provides a common framework and direction for WASH interventions.
- The provision of menstrual hygiene materials to all women and girls and offering two options (a reusable material and disposable pads) that were identified through a participatory consultation to better understand the needs of the POCs.
- Handwashing promotion at community level with appropriate handwashing devices at strategic locations including market, schools, kindergartens and youth recreation and leisure spaces. Mixed with disease vector control actions such as chlorine spraying and ash, the handwashing related efforts kept all the refugees sites in South Kivu free of waterborne diseases like cholera and Ebola in 2018, even though they are located in a cholera endemic zone.
- The extension of existing water network with poly-tanks, PE pipes and tapstands to improve the level of service provided.
- Ensuring that the water quality always meets the health standards through continuous water treatment and testing of drinking water, as well as handwashing water with an average of 700 cubic meter per day.
- Solid waste recycling pilot project with 2 tons of ecological charcoal blocks produced under the supervision of the partner ADRA Congo.
- Multiplication of the laundry facilities with an improvement of the design and regular soap distribution and with extra quantities for women and girls for menstrual hygiene.
Displaced women at a water point in North Kivu (photo: UNHCR)
Q: What are the main difficulties and challenges UNHCR finds in providing access to clean water and sanitation?
A: The high proportion of flood-prone areas and hilly lands results in environmental risks with a need of expensive innovative construction and maintenance solutions. In fact, soil and water degradation because of excreta, solid wastes, and water drainage, make it necessary to put in place conservation actions in the Lusenda camp and the Mulongwe site. Therefore, the long-term cost for maintaining the infrastructures and protecting the shallow groundwater during the life time of the sites is very high.
Insecurity in the area makes the supervision of the field work like drilling very problematic to accomplish.
Limited technical capacities in water and sanitation in South Kivu with available well trained wash professionals is rare, since there is a necessity of multidisciplinary skills to be a good fit. Unfortunately, funds allocated to WASH projects are decreasing, which limits investment capacities, staffing, capacity building activities, upgrading of the emergency equipment and infrastructures to durable solutions. This lack of financial resources has a very negative impact on the lives and wellbeing of the population in the area, some of which have suffered multiple displacements during their existance.
The limited adherence of partner to the Refugee and host population empowerment strategy reduce the impact of the ongoing UNHCR efforts in the WASH field.
Women and girls have a tendency to use the existing wells at nighttime, which can expose them to protection risks, including sexual and gender based violence
Q: With regards to World Water Day, why do you think it necessary to highlight the marginalized groups’ difficulty in accessing safe water?
A: Many of the households from marginalized groups consist of one person. From time to time, when water is scarce on sites, elderlies and people with disabilities are usually those who go back home without a drop of clean water. Furthermore, the distance to the water point, as well as challenges related to a hilly landscape, make the water transportation for children, elderlies and people with disabilities very difficult. Moreover, women and girls have a tendency to use the existing wells at nighttime, which can expose them to protection risks, including sexual and gender based violence.
So it is necessary to do something to reduce those difficulties.
Q: And lastly, what do you think citizens can do to make the SDG 6 (sustainable access to water and sanitation for all) goal possible?
A: To make the SDG 6 goal possible, everyone can step up to the plate and do their part and be open to behaviour changes. This involvement can take shape in numerous ways depending on what people most care about and their capabilities:
- Addressing water, sanitation and hygiene needs can be achieved through innovative partnerships between all stakeholders including private sectors, government, civil society, and all components of communities.
- Water pollution is a real problem in many countries and makes many water resources unsuitable for human use or is very expensive to make potable. In DRC and elsewhere, citizens need to protect water resources through proper management of solid and human waste by managing their wastes properly and limiting the misuses. This can be effective if citizens consider water resources as a common good.
- To reach the “for all” target, citizens can also be involved in many ways. Wealthy people can help in financing water and sanitation projects including research for low cost initiatives. As part of this momentum, scientists can increase their engagements in water and sanitation fields that can help to improve the availability of safe water and sanitation technologies while reducing costs.